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Airwaves: August 19, 2011

The State of Digital Radio

My comments recently regarding Radio Shack discontinuing every one of their house-brand HD Radio receivers brought in some interesting emails, some readers stating they like HD others wishing it would go away.

Enter Robert Struble, President and CEO of iBiquity Digital Corporation, the developer of the HD Radio system, a system that currently sends a digital stream along with a radio station’s regular analog signal. That stream is then decoded by a special radio and the audio can be heard, giving what HD supporters say is better sounding audio on both AM and FM stations, along with extra streams that can be heard on many FM HD stations.

According to Struble, the move by Radio Shack was not unexpected. “All products have a life cycle,” he explained, and I believe that Radio Shack will have new HD radios available in a short time.”

In the meantime, Struble says, new, lower-power and better performing chips are on the horizon, other retailers continue to make the radios available, and automakers are expanding their HD offerings. In fact, he says, the number of HD radios in cars has been doubling each year for the past few years. Expect 2012 to be a big year for HD Radio, Struble predicts.

Killing AM

I am an AM radio supporter, and have been since I got my first transistor radio from my Auntie Ina when I was about 10. I have always felt that AM pushed listeners to FM not through inferior sound quality, but inferior programming. KFI (640 AM), in fact, proves that people will still tune in to AM given the right content. Some day I’d like to program an adult top-40 AM station just to prove that music on AM can still work. But I digress.

In spite of my love of AM radio, I am beginning to come to a sad conclusion: AM is dead. Well, not dead yet, but getting there. Many people younger than 35 don’t even think of pushing the AM button. Bad programming hurts, as do bad radios, which make the band sound worse than ever.

Even HD Radio hurts. How? Many argue that the interference from the HD system itself -- heard as a “hash” sound when you tune between stations -- is a major problem. But in my opinion, even deadlier for AM stations are HD FM simulcasts -- You can hear, for example, KNX (1070 AM), KABC (790 AM), KFWB (980 AM) and KMZT (1260 AM) on digital HD streams carried by their sister FM stations, making AM unnecessary -- and the fact that portable HD radios don’t even have AM tuners.

That’s right: the broadcast system that was to be the savior of AM doesn’t even include AM in portable radios because it is too hard to receive the HD signals with a small antenna. You couldn’t push the “AM” button even if you wanted to.

Maybe the time is right to go back to a simpler time. Switch off the HD on AM and allow stations to open up their sound ... increase their frequency bandwidth (AM is technically able to sound quite good, even though most AM radios do not), require better AM tuners in radios, and perhaps even bring back AM stereo, which would likely sound even better today than it did in the 1980s using modern circuits.

Then, of course, play something people want to hear. I now offer my services if needed ...

Short Takes

John Kobylt says that the ratings for the John and Ken Show (afternoons, 3-7) on KFI have hit an all-time high in their time slot: #1 among people 12 and over (5.6), #1 among people 25-54 (5.5), #1 among people 35-54 (6.5), and #1 among people 35-64 (6.8). He probably wants me to retract the “burnt” comment I made regarding the show a while back; I’m not ready yet but I do congratulate the team ... Go Country 105 also had its best month ever, beating KOST (103.5 FM) in the demographic of women aged 25-54, traditionally KOST’s strong demo ...

FM news stations are launching in New York and Chicago under the direction of Walter Sabo and Randy Michaels. You may remember Michaels as former head of Jacor and Clear Channel; Sabo was once a consultant for the RKO radio division. Sabo says that the stations will be a “new model” for news coverage and be aimed at “working families.” Will such a format happen here? Don’t bet against it. My guess is that it will happen within five years, though ratings success is not guaranteed ...

Ever listen to a station on a Smart Phone or on line and wonder why the commercials differ from what is run over the air? The Sound (100.3 FM) programmer Dave Beasing explained that it has to do with licensing fees and payments to the commercial spokesmen and women. It turns out that online airing of commercials is considered distinct from over the air commercials even when it originates from the same station.


Copyright © 2011 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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